It’s clear that Django Kroner loves trees.
In the sun-dappled stillness of the Red River Gorge, Kroner walks comfortably up a steep hillside, pointing out rhododendrons in bloom here, absentmindedly running his fingers along an evergreen bough there.
For three years, a simple treehouse on this private hillside was his home. Now, he builds treehouses for a living.
Kroner, of Cincinnati, is the owner of The Canopy Crew. The company designs and builds custom treehouses for clients in three states, offers treehouse vacation rentals at the Red River Gorge, and provides tree-care services for customers in the Cincinnati area.
It all started when Kroner, who had recently graduated from high school, moved to the Gorge in 2009 to pursue his passion for rock climbing while helping build rental cabins for Red River Gorgeous.
“I was living in a tent back in the woods here,” he said. “I started to get a little bit worn out with the mud. It was a particularly rainy summer.”
Kroner, 27, remembers looking up into the trees and thinking how dry it would be higher up, under all those leaves.
So he built a treehouse with only a floor, a roof and a back wall.
“My goal was to try not to have any filters between myself and nature,” he said recently while gazing up at the structure, which overlooks a creek. “Stars, owls, squirrels. Not a lot of humans, but company.”
Kroner said that every time he brought friends to see his living quarters, they left feeling inspired, and he decided he wanted to share that feeling with as many people as possible.
“That was something that felt like real, sustainable contentment,” he said. “If you’ve got to choose something to do with your life, why not build treehouses?”
In 2013, he launched Canopy Crew.
As of July 2017, he had built about 35 “structures in trees” for clients in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. He has built treehouses for children and adults, and for summer camps. They’re in backyards, on farms and in forests in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.
Kroner’s treehouses are sometimes simple platforms in the trees. But often, they’re more detailed architectural structures, with fun additions such as trap doors, swinging bridges and pulley systems for raising windows or carrying items up from the ground.
One client had him drop an old clawfoot bathtub into a hole in the deck, he said.
Todd Redding hired Kroner to build a backyard treehouse for his three children in early 2017. The structure is about 8 feet off the ground, with a 100-foot zipline, a custom seat and a deck.
“It just came out perfect,” Redding said.
He said his 9-year-old daughter loves spending time in the treehouse with her dolls, and his 14-year-old son brings friends up for Nerf gun battles.
“We’ve had sleepovers. We’ve had birthday parties,” he said. “It’s been the hit of the neighborhood.”
Prices vary widely, but Kroner said treehouses for children often average about $10,000, and adults often spend $50,000 for their above-ground hideaways.
The labor of “moving lumber through the woods up into the sky,” especially in remote areas like the Gorge, is one of the biggest challenges, he said.
Kroner’s skills uniquely prepared him for the business. Rock climbing gave him rigging skills. He learned carpentry while building cabins with Red River Gorgeous and during a year when he spent building houses for Habitat for Humanity through AmeriCorps.
He gained expertise about trees while apprenticing with an arborist in Cincinnati for two years.
“The biggest part of building treehouses is accommodating the trees,” he said. “The trees determine a lot of the design.”
He builds them with lots of cables so the trees are able to move independently of structures. Framing is kept off the bark so the tree has room to grow.
Kroner said about half the work he does is building treehouses, and the other half is tree service. When possible, he repurposes wood gleaned from the tree service in building treehouses.
In 2016, Kroner worked with Popular Woodworking to publish a how-to guide to building treehouses, The Perfect Treehouse: From Site Selection to Design and Construction. He said, as of July 2017, the book had sold about 2,500 copies.
The profits from Kroner’s business are funneled back to help him build rental treehouses at the Gorge. His goal is to build one each year until there’s a “village” of them. He hopes to start work on his third rental this fall.
Red River Gorgeous handles the bookings and cleaning for his rental treehouses.
The Sylvan Float is Kroner’s first rental treehouse, built between a hickory and a red oak that stand a short walk from the simple platform treehouse he first built.
From the wraparound deck 25 feet off the ground, “you can see all the way from the holler to the cliffs on the other side,” he said.
It rents for $130 to $160 a night, depending on the time of year and the day of the week. Kroner said he spent about $50,000 building the treehouse, and it paid for itself in the first year.
The Observatory, another treehouse, sits higher up the hill and is a series of four interconnected structures and an observation deck reached via 171 steps, including two ship’s ladders. The structures are a kitchen, an outhouse, a gear room with two hammocks and a futon, and a sleeping nook, with a full-size mattress and beautiful views through two glass walls.
It rents for $250 to $325 a night, which includes access to a Dobsonian telescope. Solar panels provide energy so guests can charge their electronics.
Kroner said he and his crew, made up mostly of rock climbers, built The Observatory in three months, working 10- and 12-hour days.
Both treehouses offer gas cook tops, heating and potable water. There are composting outhouses nearby, but guests who want a shower will have to walk down the hill to the offices of Red River Gorgeous.
On a summer afternoon, a group of four friends from Louisville and Virginia explored The Sylvan Float, their home for the night.
The treehouse is designed for two people, with a full-sized mattress in a loft above the kitchen, Kroner said additional guests sometimes sleep on the kitchen floor or on the deck outside.
Cassie Chadwell of Big Stone Gap, Va., said she’d been looking for a place to stay during their getaway to the gorge, and when she saw the treehouse online, the decision was easy.
“It’s pretty much booked, so we had to book it from pretty far out,” Chadwell said. She said she was most excited about trying out the hammock suspended from a hole in the deck floor.
Kroner said he decided to add that touch when he ran out of decking material before the deck was finished. There are two layers of netting for redundancy — a practice he picked up from rock climbing.
“If one breaks, the other one’s got ya,” Kroner said.
“I love it,” said Briana Cox of Louisville. “I could live here.”